NFL Nation: Erik Lorig

The New Orleans Saints placed fullback Austin Johnson on injured reserve with the knee injury he suffered nine days earlier against the Green Bay Packers. They replaced him with second-year offensive tackle Nick Becton, whom they signed off the New York Giants’ practice squad.

The specifics of Johnson’s knee injury are unknown. It’s a shame his season ended so early since the underdog had been off to such a great start.

Johnson began his NFL career as an undrafted linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, but he switched positions and joined the Saints in 2013. Then after spending last season on the practice squad, Johnson cracked the opening-day roster this year. He was primarily a blocker but had 22 rushing yards and 15 receiving yards with a touchdown.

At least the timing worked out for the Saints, who got veteran fullback Erik Lorig back from his own ankle injury in mid-October. Lorig has still been shaking off some rust in his first two games back, but he’s a proven veteran whom the Saints expected to be their starter all along this year before he suffered his injury in training camp.

Becton (6-foot-6, 323 pounds) spent last year with the San Diego Chargers after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia Tech. He appeared in one game, spending most of his time on the practice squad. Then he joined the Giants’ practice squad in September after being released by San Diego.

It’s unclear if the Saints are concerned about starting right tackle Zach Strief’s availability after he left last Thursday’s game at Carolina with a back injury. The Saints’ first practice and injury report of the week will be Wednesday as they prepare to host the San Francisco 49ers.

The Saints also added two new players to their practice squad -- fullback Michael Zordich and running back Tauren Poole.
METAIRIE, La. -- Austin Johnson went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2012, when he signed as a linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens.

So needless to say, it’s a bit of a surprise that Johnson now stands as the New Orleans Saints’ likely starting fullback heading into this season. But that is indeed the case after the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has taken advantage of his opportunity to replace injured starter Erik Lorig during training camp.

[+] EnlargeAustin Johnson
AP Photo/Sam RicheAustin Johnson helped his cause to start for the Saints with a TD in last Saturday's preseason game.
Johnson’s 3-yard touchdown reception last Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts showed off his versatility as an agile pass-catcher and a powerful hitter. Johnson drove through linebacker Erik Walden to reach the goal line.

"I like to show that I can do it all and that I'm not like a stiff, not-able-to-move fullback,” Johnson said. “You know, I can run, I can catch and I can also block. So I try to show that throughout my game."

Johnson played fullback early in his career at Tennessee before switching to linebacker. So teams looked at him in both roles as he came out of college. When he didn’t make the Ravens’ roster, the Saints later signed him the following January with the intention of switching him to fullback. He spent most of last season on New Orleans’ practice squad.

Johnson figured his best chance to crack the Saints’ roster this year would be through special teams. But when Lorig suffered a leg injury a week into practice, he became the No. 1 fullback.

The extent of Lorig’s injury is still unknown, though he hasn’t even appeared on the sidelines during practice yet. And Johnson will still have to fend off 13-year veteran fullback Greg Jones, whom the Saints signed in the wake of Lorig’s injury.

But so far, Johnson has done his best to make the decision easy for the Saints’ coaches.

"I knew nothing was going to be easy. I knew that I was going to have competition, and when they brought in Greg, I just knew I needed to keep playing well. I knew they weren’t just going to give me the starting spot,” Johnson said. “We’re still competing for that spot. And I’m just trying to go out there and show them what I can do and hopefully give them enough confidence that I can play.”

Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees certainly had enough trust in Johnson to target him on that touchdown play Saturday -- which is no small thing, considering it was Brees’ first drive of the preseason, and he was no doubt eager to cap it off with a touchdown.

"He’s done a great job all camp. Obviously Erik Lorig going down was tough, but Austin has stepped in and done a great job whenever called upon in whatever role, whether that be the fullback position or special teams, you name it," Brees said. "He's one of those lunch-pail guys, comes to work, ready to do whatever's asked of him. He’s done that very, very well."
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have never specified the nature of fullback Erik Lorig’s leg injury. But clearly it’s not a minor issue, since Lorig hasn’t even watched a practice in street clothes since first suffering the injury during a scrimmage on Aug. 2.

Jones
The fact that the Saints immediately went out and signed veteran fullback Greg Jones was another indicator that they didn’t expect Lorig back quickly.

It’s still unknown when or if Lorig is expected back this season. But coach Sean Payton said the team will prepare as if he’s not going to be ready for Week 1, with Jones and third-year pro Austin Johnson competing to serve as Lorig’s replacement.

"Our preparation's got to be with the idea that, as Erik's rehabbing, we've got to be ready to have a fullback Week 1, with the chance it's not going to be Erik," Payton said. "And so both of those guys are competing.

“Greg’s a veteran player. Austin's been with us now for the better part of a year and a half. And so I think, No. 1, Austin's had a good camp. Greg's been here for two weeks. Both of them will play a lot again this weekend [Saturday night at Indianapolis].”

Payton later added that Johnson is “doing real well.” The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder spent most of last season on the Saints’ practice squad after signing with the team in January 2013. Johnson was actually a linebacker in college at Tennessee, and he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2012. But he didn’t find a permanent home that season.

Johnson has shown potential as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield, and he could also be used on special teams.

Meanwhile Jones, 33, is a 10-year veteran who spent last season with the Houston Texans and his first nine years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 6-1, 251-pounder has primarily served as a lead blocker in 131 career games played. He also has a total of 272 carries for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, plus 73 receptions for 471 yards and three touchdowns.

Last season, Jones played in all 16 games for the Texans with five starts, with a total of two rushes for 2 yards and five receptions for 34 yards.

The Saints could also use their tight ends as fullbacks in certain situations. Second-year tight end Josh Hill has made some cameos in that role.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees took yet another small step toward returning to action Wednesday when he participated in some individual passing drills with the quarterbacks and receivers for the first time. But it still seems extremely unlikely that the New Orleans Saints quarterback will play in Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

Brees
Saints coach Sean Payton declined to say whether Brees will play. But Payton has consistently said the team will be smart and cautious with Brees, who strained his oblique on Aug. 1.

Either way, Brees definitely appears as though he’ll be healthy in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He has increased his workload on a daily basis, including a return to the lineup during the team’s afternoon walk-through on Tuesday, followed by his appearance in individual drills on Wednesday.

Plus, Brees showed some impressive agility while sliding across a makeshift slip-and-slide during his ALS ice-bucket challenge Tuesday.

In other Saints injury news:
  • Guard Ben Grubbs returned to live team drills for the first time Wednesday -- and he dove right in during a spirited set of live goal-line drills. Grubbs said it was a lower back issue that caused him to miss more than a week of training camp practices, but he feels good now and is blessed to have enough time to fully recover before the regular season.
  • Rookie linebacker Ronald Powell left the field with the trainers after hobbling off the field during a play. The details of his apparent injury are unknown. UPDATE: Powell reportedly returned to the field Wednesday afternoon and participated in walkthrough.
  • There was still no sign of fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Victor Butler at practice. Both players have been sidelined for nearly two weeks, though the Saints have not offered any details on the severity of their injuries.
  • Guard Jahri Evans and cornerback Patrick Robinson made brief appearances on the sideline Wednesday but did not participate in practice. Also not practicing Wednesday: receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne, tight end Je’Ron Hamm, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman.
  • UPDATE: Cornerback Champ Bailey participated in individual drills and the morning walk-through during Wednesday's practice but was reportedly absent from the afternoon walk-through.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC South

March, 10, 2014
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The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

Free-agency primer: Buccaneers

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.

Bucs' free agents: Nos. 1-5

February, 12, 2014
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Let's complete our look at Tampa Bay's potential free agents with Nos. 1 through 5.

1. Adam Hayward, linebacker. As a linebacker, Hayward has limited value as a backup. But Hayward was the captain for Tampa Bay’s special teams last season. New coach Lovie Smith places a premium on special teams, so it would make a lot of sense to bring Hayward back.

2. Erik Lorig, fullback. The Bucs are going to be a run-first team. Lorig is a decent lead blocker, so it makes sense to try to keep him around.

3. Jonathan Casillas, linebacker. Casillas could be a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. He also has plenty of value on special teams.

4. Tiquan Underwood, wide receiver. He ended up starting after Mike Williams was injured last season. Underwood is not a guy you want in the starting lineup every week, but he could fill a role as the third or fourth receiver.

5. Jamon Meredith, guard. Injuries propelled Meredith into the lineup last season. The Bucs are likely to try to upgrade their offensive line this offseason, but Meredith could have some value as a backup.

Upon Further Review: Buccaneers Week 1

September, 9, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 18-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsThe Jets sacked Josh Freeman three times in the Bucs' loss on Sunday.
Freeman's future: We’re not yet to the point at which the Bucs have a full-fledged quarterback controversy, but let’s be totally honest: Josh Freeman did not look good Sunday. When he didn’t look good in the preseason, it was easy to shrug off, but this was the real deal, and it’s time to start getting concerned. Freeman completed 15 of 31 passes for 210 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a game in which the offense never got into anything close to a rhythm. Undoubtedly, some fans will already be calling for rookie Mike Glennon. I still think Freeman is Tampa Bay’s best option to win, but my opinion on that could change with a few more performances like this one.

Sophomore slump? After a stellar rookie season, running back Doug Martin had a dud of a game. Martin averaged only 2.7 yards per carry. He gained 65 yards on 24 carries. But don’t go cutting Martin from your fantasy team just yet. Keep in mind the Bucs were without guard Carl Nicks and fullback Erik Lorig, who are two of Martin’s most important blockers.

The overaggressive defense: Lavonte David's late hit on rookie quarterback Geno Smith set up the game-winning field goal for the Jets. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson were also flagged for 15-yard penalties that turned out to be very costly. You want a defense to be aggressive, but you also want it to be smart. The Bucs have to be smarter on defense.

The bright spot: There was at least one for the Bucs. That was a pass rush that produced five sacks. Two came from linebacker Mason Foster, and David and linebacker Dekoda Watson each produced one sack. Daniel Te’o-Nesheim was the only defensive lineman to record a sack. The fact the Bucs came up with five sacks was encouraging, but they’ll need more pressure out of their front four if they’re going to have a chance against New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees next week.

Buccaneers had no offensive rhythm

September, 8, 2013
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Guard Carl Nicks was out with a MRSA staph infection. Fullback Erik Lorig sat out with a calf injury. Even the radio system used to call the offensive plays wasn’t working at times.

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Doug Martin
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsDoug Martin averaged just 2.7 yards per carry against the Jets.
But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have no legitimate excuse for how their offense performed in Sunday’s 18-17 loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

Yes, there were two touchdowns, but one of them was a gift -- a 5-yard run that came after the defense recovered a fumble. Oh, and there was that 37-yard pass from Josh Freeman to Vincent Jackson that set up what could have ended up being a game-winning field goal.

But that’s where the highlights ended for the Bucs, which was more than a little surprising. Say what you want about Freeman, who is a mystery to many. But the Bucs appear to be loaded at the other offensive skill positions.

“It’s frustrating to everyone because we have good players and we will find a rhythm with this offense but we certainly haven’t found it yet,’’ coach Greg Schiano said.

The Bucs never got into anything close to a rhythm as they managed only 250 yards of total offense. Freeman’s been known to struggle at times, but the fact that the running game was ineffective is far more troubling.

Doug Martin, who had such a big rookie year, averaged only 2.7 yards per carry while rushing 24 times for 65 yards.

“We have a special talent in Doug,’’ Freeman said.

But the Bucs didn’t get as much as they should out of Martin’s talent or the rest of their talent on offense.

“I’d say the next 24 hours (are) going to be rough on everyone,’’ Freeman said. Everybody’s going to be going back, watching the film and critiquing everything they did.’’

The offensive meeting rooms at One Buccaneer Place aren’t going to be a pleasant place on Monday.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' injury update

September, 6, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just announced guard Carl Nicks is out for Sunday’s season opener against the New York Jets.

That’s not a surprise because Nicks, who is recovering from a staph infection, hasn’t practiced all week. But, as recently as early Friday afternoon, coach Greg Schiano said he wasn’t ready to rule Nicks out. Reserve tackle Gabe Carimi has gotten most of the first-team work at Nicks’ left guard spot.

The Bucs also are listing tight end Tom Crabtree (ankle) as out and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (hamstring) as doubtful. Running back Mike James (eye) and fullback Erik Lorig (calf) are questionable and cornerback Darrelle Revis (knee) and tackle Demar Dotson (back) are listed as probable.

Injury check on the Buccaneers

September, 4, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just issued their first official injury report of the season, and there were no major surprises.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is coming off knee surgery, participated fully in Wednesday’s practice, and is expected to play Sunday against his former team, the New York Jets. Running back Mike James (eye) and fullback Erik Lorig (calf) participated on a limited basis.

Tight end Tom Crabtree (ankle) and guard Carl Nicks (staph infection) were the only players who did not participate in practice. Coach Greg Schiano said it’s too early to rule out Nicks for the game with the Jets.

Projecting the Buccaneers roster

August, 30, 2013
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Roster cuts don’t have to be made until 6 p.m. Saturday. But let’s have a little fun in the meantime.

Let’s take a look at my best guess as to how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 53-man roster will shape up:

Quarterbacks (3): Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Dan Orlovsky

Analysis: A rough outing by Glennon in the preseason finale might have convinced the Bucs it’s best to keep Orlovsky around.

Running backs and fullbacks (5): Doug Martin, Brian Leonard, Mike James, Peyton Hillis and Erik Lorig

Analysis: Hillis is very much on the bubble. The fact he doesn't play special teams could hurt him. But he also could stick around because he has the size to be a backup for Lorig at fullback and could be a valuable short-yardage rusher.

Tight ends (3): Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree and Nate Byham

Analysis: The Bucs may have to keep Danny Noble if Crabtree’s ankle injury is going to keep him out for an extended period.

Wide receivers (5): Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood and Eric Page

Analysis: Page has emerged as the return man and that should earn him the final roster spot.

Offensive line (9): Davin Joseph, Carl Nicks, Donald Penn, Demar Dotson, Jeremy Zuttah, Gabe Carimi, Ted Larsen, Jamon Meredith and Cody Wallace

Analysis: The Bucs could carry an extra lineman if it looks like Nicks will be out for an extended period.

Defensive line (10): Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence, Adrian Clayborn, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Da’Quan Bowers, Gary Gibson, Trevor Scott, William Gholston, Steven Means and Derek Landri

Analysis: The last few spots are very competitive and the Bucs could look to bring in a defensive tackle from the waiver wire.

Linebackers (6): Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Casillas, Adam Hayward and Najee Goode

This position is pretty clear-cut unless the Bucs bring in someone off waivers.

Defensive backs (9): Darrelle Revis, Johnthan Banks, Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer, Michael Adams, Rashaan Melvin and Cody Grimm.

Analysis: Melvin and Grimm are very much on the bubble.

Specialists (3): Michael Koenen, Andrew Economos and Rian Lindell.

Analysis: Kicker Lawrence Tynes still is recovering from a staph infection and could end up on injured reserve.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.

Ranking the needs: Running backs

April, 23, 2013
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We continue our pre-draft rankings of position-group needs with the running backs.

Remember, the earlier the ranking, the greater the need.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are in great shape with Doug Martin as their starting tailback and Erik Lorig as their fullback. The Bucs brought in Brian Leonard to replace D.J. Ware as the third-down back. But this team still could use a workhorse back just in case something happens to Martin. LeGarrette Blount remains on the roster for now, but it sure looks as if the coaching staff doesn’t have much faith in him and he could be traded or released.

Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson should be an upgrade over Michael Turner and I expect Jacquizz Rodgers to continue to emerge. But Jackson is not young. The Falcons are in a situation where they might be able to draft a running back (South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore perhaps?) in the middle rounds and bring him along slowly.

Carolina Panthers: Carolina is overloaded with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the backfield.

New Orleans Saints: They are even more overloaded than the Panthers with Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. The New York Jets reportedly have shown interest in trading for Ivory.

Escalators and the NFC South

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
3:13
PM ET
One of the many reasons the New Orleans Saints are in a difficult salary-cap situation is that six of their players triggered escalators that will cost the team nearly $4 million in 2013.

Kicker Garrett Hartley earned a $1.432 million escalator and safety Malcolm Jenkins earned a $1.25 million raise. The other Saints to hit escalators were receiver Lance Moore ($100,000), tackle Zach Strief ($300,000), tight end Jimmy Graham ($700,000) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson ($195,000).

I’ve also got the numbers on escalators that were triggered elsewhere in the NFC South. In most cases, the escalators were based on players meeting specified playing-time levels in 2012. But, in some cases, the escalators were triggered by playing time in previous years.

Atlanta’s Michael Turner, who could end up being a salary-cap casualty, had his base salary escalate by $1.4 million. Defensive end John Abraham triggered a $1 million escalator. The other two Falcons to earn escalators for this season are defensive tackle Corey Peters ($600,000) and cornerback Asante Samuel ($200,000).

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy had his team’s largest escalator ($775,000). Receiver Brandon LaFell earned a $700,000 escalator and offensive lineman Garry Williams will pick up an extra $125,000.

The Tampa Bay players to hit escalators were offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah ($250,000), tackle Demar Dotson ($500,000), receiver Mike Williams ($800,000), offensive lineman Ted Larsen ($700,000), safety Cody Grimm ($625,000, which was based on his 2010 playing time) and fullback Erik Lorig ($425,000).

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